Wednesday, January 17, 2007

what I've learned about substitute teaching...

Fifth grade edition. Two days down, two days to go.

Fifth graders are interesting. They are, for the most part, autonomous, and can do their work with little or no supervision. The reality is that they will do their work about 60% of the time, and would easily spend the remaining 40% of the time chatting and otherwise goofing around. I don't think this is particular to this class, because I saw exactly the same behavior in the other fifth grade class today when we had a combined class period. I am astounded by how much energy they spend trying to get out of doing their work.

But I digress. Here are the high points:

1. Be decisive. Even if you make the wrong decision, any sign of wishy-washiness will immediately be exploited. If they peg you as a softy, you're toast.

2. Don't smile. This was the advice given to me by one of the other subs at the school, and with this particular age group, it's imperative. Smiles are interpreted as signs of friendliness. I am not there to become a friend. I'm there to make sure they get their work done.

3. If they don't have enough work to do, they'll act up. This afternoon I took away "free" quiet study time because they were neither quiet nor studying, and made them copy out their times tables for 10s, 11s, and 12s. The benefits (to them) of this became obvious when several began asking "What's 12 times 11?" My response: Figure it out. You're supposed to know this stuff already. Plus, the hoped-for result of a quieter classroom was attained, at least for a little while.

4. Impose consequences sooner rather than later. Day 1, I resisted imposing consequences for all the chattiness. Day 2, the class had already lost 5 minutes of recess by 9 o'clock. They were stunned: Did we just lose 5 minutes!? Me: Yes. Them: Can we get it back? Me: No. (Lest you think I am a complete dragon lady, I had already shushed them 3 times, and warned them if I had to shush them again they'd lose that 5 minutes. It's remarkable how quickly a classroom with 27 5th-graders can go from quiet to noisy.)

During reading, the two kids that were fooling around the most got sent out into the hallway to finish reading on their own, some three minutes after I had told them to settle down. (If it had been 10 minutes, I might have gone with another warning; at that point, though, it was obvious the first warning had been meaningless, so why waste another one?)

5. Avoid choosing students via the hand-raising method. Picking a reader or someone to answer a question can be difficult if you don't know the kids' names, so use whatever system the teacher has set up for random selection (we used popsicle sticks with the kids' names on them -- choose a stick, there's the next kid to read), or start at one row or table and proceed from kid to kid.

6. If they think they're finished with an assignment and want to turn it in, they're done, regardless of what's on the paper. I know some of the papers that have been turned in don't represent these kids' best work, but that's their choice, and they'll have to live with the consequences. Contrast this to my philosophy regarding my own children's homework: if it's poorly done, I'll ask them, Is this the best you can do? and give them a chance to notice their mistakes and correct them. But they're my kids, and it's homework.

7. Deny the attention-seekers an audience. In every class, there will be one (or two, or three) kids who dramatize every tiny thing. Usually they're very entertaining. They're also distracting, and often disrespectful, flashing wide innocent eyes as they proclaim I wasn't doing anything!, which is precisely the problem. Nip any such performances in the bud. Sending these kids to work solo out in the hallway is tantamount to banishment to them, hence, it works.

8. Separate the kids who are too chummy. Sometimes, you have to break up the friends or the work isn't going to get done.

9. When covering class material, focus. It's easy to get led far afield from the topic at hand. We were discussing how the Spanish brought slaves from Africa to work their colonies there after many Indian slaves died, and all of a sudden we were talking about the economics of European land ownership. Yes, it was an interesting discussion and the kids probably learned something, but it was tangential to the topic at hand. Unfortunately at this age the kids will fixate on some exotic detail, and pick that out as the most important item of information to remember. Their intellectual sorting and prioritizing abilities are still developing, so if you throw in a lot of extraneous materials, it isn't really doing them any good.

I explained to the class today something I've told my own kids dozens of times: I can't make you do anything -- each of us is responsible for our own behavior -- but I can make your life pretty miserable if you don't do what I ask. There was some resistance to this idea of self-control and personal responsibility, because "It's not my fault" is part of the daily vocabularly of a few of these kids, along with a variety of other excuses. I universally dismiss such excuses, and encourage the kids to move on to the tasks at hand. This is crucial to avoid getting bogged down into a discussion assigning blame, etc. Pass! There's no point. Just get on with the work!

I told some stories at dinner tonight. DS1 told me: Mom, you're great as a mom, but you're scary as a teacher.

That's exactly what I was aiming for.

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